Monday, December 17, 2012

Climate change and rural adaptation "Down Under"

By Geoff Cockfield, Associate Professor at University of Southern Queensland (Australia)

Earlier this month, some Australian news media ran articles about a future in which average temperatures would increase by six degrees. Previously discussed scenarios were generally limited to ‘plus two’ to ‘plus four’ futures. But with the failure of efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, evident in the very modest progress on mitigation from the latest UN climate talks in Doha, and rapid industrialisation in China and India, more dramatic change is being considered.

In Australia the ‘Millennium’ drought of 2002-2009 provided a picture of what such a future might be like, at least for us. Since 1970, rainfall trends have generally conformed to climate change models that suggest less rainfall in the southern and western areas, with some increases in the tropical and sub-tropical areas. If current trends continue, they will contribute to the reshaping of rural areas.

Climate Change Hotspots in Australia
Source: WWF, click on the image to enlarge.

Rural trends in Australia

The demographic trend is to fewer people on farms, in small agriculture-dependent towns and in remote areas, other than where there are mining projects. Higher temperatures, less water for irrigation and large high-tech farms will leave an even more sparsely settled inland. Already, 80 percent of people live within 100 kilometers of the coastline, with 64 percent of those in five major metropolitan areas. Climate change will add to the reasons for people to move.

The ‘long dry’ as well as the wages paid in the burgeoning mining sector accelerated the long-term trends of farm aggregation and the replacement of labor with large-scale machinery, especially in Western Australia where the dry years continued through 2011 and 2012. Farmers are reducing livestock numbers, especially sheep, with some farmers especially affected by having to shoot starving animals during the worst of the drought. The economic effects of the decrease in livestock numbers flow through regional meat processing businesses and contractors such as shearers, accelerating the overall decline of small rural towns.

The hot conditions, which disproportionately affect the elderly, will tend to leave some inland areas as places to work for periods of time, rather than places to live in the long term. Other disadvantages could include greater exposure to mosquito-borne diseases such as Dengue and Ross River fevers, as the tropics ‘expand’ south and the increasing costs of energy and transport as a result of the new national carbon tax (

Threatened water supplies

This coastal and urban migration will place even greater pressure on urban water supplies. During the Millennium drought, the five mainland state governments all developed desalination plants for each of their major cities. These have however, proved costly to build and run. From 2007, the Federal Government promoted the use of recycled water. However, there remains a real resistance to full-contact uses of this water, illustrated by the resounding defeat of a recycling proposal in my home city of Toowoomba in a referendum. The problems of desalination and recycling led some state governments to seek more water from river systems, including those providing most of the water for irrigated crop industries.

Irrigation in the Murray Darling Basin is a source of
contention among conservationists and farmers.
Source: The Guardian

The Millennium drought highlighted long-term conflicts over water, especially around Australia’s most agriculturally important river system, the Murray-Darling Basin. The rice industry, an important exporter in the central Basin areas, was in virtual shutdown for two years because of the shortage of irrigation water. The dry conditions also increased political negotiations to manage water allocations in the Murray-Darling Basin, which crosses four states. The negotiations resulted in a process whereby the Federal Government will ‘buy’ back water licenses, which will reduce irrigated crop production in some areas and further reduce the size of some regional economies.

There are some, including in the Opposition political parties, who argue that there is still scope for an expansion of irrigated agriculture in the northern areas, effectively reconstructing Australian agricultural geography.  However, scientific and economic reviews are cautious given the erratic rainfall, uncertain environmental impacts of development, and the remoteness of suitable sites.

Rural adaptations in Australia

The early signs of climate change are driving various adaptations. There is research on animal and human housing insulation, alternative energy strategies for rural and remote areas, and alternative crops and crop production. Mitigation policies, such as carbon tax provide opportunities for carbon farming, including land management for conservation purposes that will yield income. This may be especially important for Aboriginal communities managing traditional lands. In addition, rural areas will provide the sites for other forms of energy generation, including solar and wind, although there are some local objections to wind farms.

Source: AhramOnline
The prospects for rural leadership on adaptation are somewhat hindered by a reluctance to acknowledge that there is any such problem as climate change. In survey after survey, including in the US, there appears to be higher levels of ‘skepticism’, actually outright disbelief in some cases, of climate change in rural areas and especially amongst farmers. Perhaps this goes with the tendency to political and social conservatism, an anti-green tendency, or the fear of the existential threat of climate change.

Yet rural people are good at adaptation, being so exposed to natural events and volatile markets and perhaps the incremental nature of climate change will encourage innovation and adaptation that is couched in terms of addressing the existing issues that afflict rural areas.
  • Do you see the same issues and dilemmas in the US, or at least in some regions?
  • How do you think the US political system is coping with water conflicts?

Geoff Cockfield is Associate Professor in politics and economics at the University of Southern Queensland. His research areas include rural policy, climate change adaptation and natural resources management. Before working in a university, he worked in agriculture and in rural journalism.


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